A Week in Rwanda

August 5th 2015

Until recently, I knew Rwanda only as a country that had suffered a brutal genocide. During my degree I learned about the Belgian occupation of Rwanda, the practically indistinguishable Hutu and Tutsi tribes, and the hundred days of conflict in 1994. In International Development Studies classes the Rwandan genocide is used as a prime example of the harm caused by colonialism. Meanwhile, in Political Science classes professors describe the genocide as a failure on the part of the international community. They talk about the limited definition of genocide under the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. With all this emphasis throughout my degree, I felt like I knew a lot about Rwanda. But after visiting the country I realized that my education had taught me about Rwanda as if it was frozen in time.

Our trip to Rwanda was a bit like a tour we went on on our third day there. The tour was of the home of President Habyarimana. For those of you who haven’t taken a social science degree, President Habyarimana ran the country in the time leading up to the genocide. He was responsible for creating Hutu youth militias. While he was in power Tutsis were routinely killed, although not on a grand enough scale to be termed a genocide. Instead, “genocide was being rehearsed” (to quote a haunting panel at the genocide memorial in Kigali). On top of that, President Habyarimana condoned the making of a ‘Death List’ naming all the Tutsi’s he and his followers wanted to kill. This was later used to target people during the genocide.

Needless to say, President Habyarimana was a pretty horrible guy. Interestingly though his house was presented completely devoid of his history. There was no mention of his crimes. Other than a few photos from the genocide, during the tour we were given only facts about each room and what it was used for. For example, we saw President Haryarimana’s staircase with the built-in alarm system, the shelf for guns hidden in his sons’ bedroom, the secret escape route, the safe full of money in his bathroom, and the room he kept for his witch doctor. Outside his house, we saw the pool reserved for President Habyarimana`s 19 meter long, albino python. Clearly President Habyarimana was a paranoid, superstitious dude.

Most interestingly, in the president`s complex there were the remains of an airplane. This was the plane that he died in after it was shot down by a still unknown person. Chunks of the plane’s broken carcass are scattered in the president’s yard, where it landed after being shot. The whole thing was eerie in its entire decomposing splendor.

As usual I’ve gotten carried away telling a story and have lost the main point. What I`m trying to say is that Rwanda is much like the president`s house (minus the albino snake). Like the tour of his house, many things in Rwanda aren`t talked about. If you didn’t know its history, modern day Rwanda would seem like any other up and coming middle income country. Our experience was full of clean streets, cute cafes, and sunshine.

Kigame is Rwanda`s current president, and at the time of the genocide he was the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). He has officially been president of the country since 2000, and is currently in the process of amending the constitution so he can remain in office. Many outside of the country refer to him as a ‘benevolent dictator’, although few inside would dare. It is under his rule that the word `genocide` is not used, and mourning is restricted to April through June each year.

I’ve heard many opinions on whether Kigame’s strategy of sweeping everything under the rug is good for the country or not. On the one hand, it won’t do to dwell on events of the past. Rwanda has to look forward and focus on where it is going rather than where it has been. And under Kigame, the country has become a model for the rest of East Africa. The streets are clean, people obey the laws, and Rwanda has the highest number of women in parliament in the world. Corruption is none existent. Kigame successfully took a country that was crippled by colonialism, torn apart by ethnic divides, with 2/3 of the population displaced, and turned it into a peaceful, functioning society. Obviously he didn’t do this single handedly, but still, kudos to him.

On the other hand, Rwandan society seems repressed. Like a pot about to boil over, the events of 1994 can’t be forgotten – and nor should they be. Kigame’s strategy of keeping the genocide quiet may have helped the country move forward, but it also may have prevented the citizens from grieving properly. In his rush to build a better country, did Kigame fail to respect the needs of the population? One of Erica and William’s friends put it well: he said that Kigame was the right person at the right time. Rwanda needed leadership like his in the post-genocide period to help get through it. But now, 20 years later, his style isn’t what the country needs. Kind of like how some leaders are only good in times of war, Kigame was only good in a time of crisis. Now however it seems as if new leadership is needed.

At President Habyarimana’s house his history almost became more obvious by its absence. Similarly, while we were in Rwanda the genocide felt like the elephant in the room (I say that quite literally, since in President Habyarimana`s bedroom there was a coffee table made of elephant skin, held up by stuffed elephant feet). Although the genocide isn’t discussed in Rwanda, evidence of it can`t fully be hidden. For example, there are still visible bullet holes in the sides of the Rwandan parliament buildings. They eerily stare at you as you whiz by on a moto. There are also interesting laws, clearly meant to combat any residual divisions between people.

The best example of these laws is something called Umuganda. Umuganda is essentially a 1984 style community work day that happens on the last Saturday of every month. Each community comes together to work on a project to better their area – be it picking up trash or paving a road. Sometimes the work day is concluded with a community meeting, where information is disseminated, community issues are addressed, etc. During Umuganda people are not allowed to use cars or motos, and if they are not participating in the work day they must stay inside.

In theory I’m all for community work days. The community gets a face lift, important issues are discussed, and you get to know your neighbors. So I’m not totally against Umuganda. But I don’t like the idea of it being enforced by law – in an ideal world, people would show up for a community work day because they want to, not because they have to. Also, apparently only one member of each household has to attend, so often people will send their guards or housekeepers. It seems to defeat the purpose of community building if the whole community doesn’t attend.

But before I go off on a tangent let me wrap this post up: I was comparing our trip to Rwanda with our visit to President Habyarimana’s house. What I remember from his house is all the interesting things in it, set against the backdrop of his notorious life. Similarly, our trip to Rwanda will be remembered not for the country’s turbulent history, but as a holiday from our normal lives. For me, the word ‘Rwanda’ no longer conjures images of machetes, mass graves, and Romeo Dallaire, but rather memories of clean streets, friendly people, and delicious pancakes (thanks Erica and William!).

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Strange Encounters

June 10th 2015

As you may have already read on Jeremy’s blog, yesterday we went rafting at the source of the Nile! I have my own version of the events typed and ready to go, but I’ll wait to post it until I have the pictures to go with it.* For now though, I want to talk about a strange encounter that I had before we got in the rafts: an encounter with my former self.

Let me back up a bit. Yesterday I woke up at 6:30am in order to be ready for the rafting bus to pick us up at 7:10. When we boarded the bus, still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we were struck by a funny sight: the bus was full of a dozen white girls. Jeremy and a few Ugandans were the only outliers, since everyone else was an average height, average weight, dirty blonde, sports bra-wearing, slightly sunburnt white girl, with her unwashed hair thrown into a messy bun. Essentially, they looked just like me and Shelby.

A few minutes after we’d plunked ourselves in our seats, we discovered that the girls not only looked like us, but the majority of them were 20-22 year old Canadians. Go figure. But even more coincidentally, they soon told us that they were in East Africa on an Operation Groundswell trip. Now those of you who know me well know that this is the same company that I traveled with to Peru the summer after my second year. And, even more coincidentally, I only chose Peru after the trip to East Africa I was meant to be on was cancelled due to a lack of enrollment. Crazy! What are the odds that I’d run into members of a trip that I was supposed to be on three years ago, with an organization that only has five staff and does two East Africa trips per year?! Not very high, I’ll tell you that much.

So for the purpose of this post, I’m going to say running into them was fate. Hearing them talk about their experience so far, I was transported back to my Operation Groundswell trip. Except in hindsight vision is 20/20, so I saw it in a completely different – and much less flattering – light.

It was the summer after my second year of university that I decided to go to Peru. At that point I’d taken one full year International Development Studies course and had decided that it would be my second major. I liked it because it dealt with global issues, with the purpose of creating positive change in the world. So when I decided to go to Peru it was because 1) I wanted to travel for an extended period, and 2) I wanted to get some real experience in the field of development to know firsthand what the challenges are. I knew a little bit about the pitfalls of voluntourism** so I was determined to do it right. Unfortunately, due to limited time – I had a job starting in June – I was unable to go on a more extended trip, which might have been the more ethical thing to do. I also chose to go with a group instead of going alone, which was good for the sake of my comfort, but maybe not as beneficial from a development perspective. Still, I was confident that I could find a way to still do some good.

When I found the Operation Groundswell website, I liked it for several reasons. Firstly, it was a small, Canadian-based organization started by students with the mindset that development trips shouldn’t break your bank account. They gave a detailed explanation of where my money would be going to, and they had a fundraising component which would go towards buying the materials and making a donation to all the projects we’d be working on. Secondly, all the organizations we would visit were created and run by locals, and our role would simply be providing manual labour. Thirdly, they made no big claims about changing the world – the idea was that we would be backpacking for our own personal gain, but we would be doing so as ethically and sustainably as possible.

Luckily for me, everyone on my trip was a development student. My trip leaders were also well versed in the issues with development – they made sure we read books like Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America before our departure, we took a week of intensive Spanish classes upon our arrival, our leaders had regular de-brief sessions with us during projects, and they were incredibly respectful and mindful of everyone we encountered. For the last few days of the trip we had a ‘disorientation’ session, and when I returned to Canada I took an experiential learning course to reflect on my experience (it was actually from a student in that class that I learned about this internship – funny how things work out).

In Peru I had no illusions about saving the world, but I was also fairly certain that because of my careful choices and my trip leaders’ diligence I hadn’t caused any harm, and had maybe even had some mutually beneficial encounters. But talking to the girls on the rafting trip yesterday, I was forced to once again look back at my experience with a critical eye. I still maintain that my time in Peru wasn’t necessarily BAD – I certainly gained a lot, and at the very least our donations went straight to the local organizations – but I know the practice of voluntourism isn’t something I’m proud to say I’ve participated in. Especially after hearing those girls say things like how they saw the “real Africa” because they visited a slum. Even a five minute conversation with them made me uncomfortable.

Now one reaction would be to sneer condescendingly at these twelve girls, disgusted by their ignorance to the glaring flaws of voluntourism. But then I realized that these flaws were only glaringly obvious to me and my fellow scholars, as students of International Development Studies. I’ve spent the last four years studying the ins and outs of development – learning about the problems with voluntourism and the detrimental mindset that the Global South needs “saving”. But when I was nineteen and signed up for Operation Groundswell, I wasn’t too far off from where they are now. True, I’ve never owned a piece of Lulu Lemon clothing in my life, or gotten an inaccurate tattoo of a world map on my feet, and I’ve never said something about getting to stay with “real Africans”. But I may have been similarly smug about seeing a different side of Peru because we spent some time with a family in the Patchecutek slum outside of Lima.

So am I somehow better than those twelve girls? No, most definitely not. More educated on development issues maybe, but not better. I think they probably think they’re doing really great work. They genuinely want to help. Little do they know that the well they built probably needed to be redone by locals after they left. Or that the mindset of “saving Africa” is robbing the agency from a whole continent of intelligent, creative people. But that’s not their fault – like any of us they’ve most likely grown up with the rhetoric that Africa needs saving, and that the problems on this continent somehow happened in a vacuum, instead of being created and perpetuated by people in the Global North.

Mohammed Ali once said, “service to others is the rent we pay for our life here on earth”. Those girls are simply trying to do service, but are maybe approaching it from the wrong angle. But on that note, what is the right angle? In her article entitled ‘The Problem with Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism’, Pippa Biddle explains how as a 19 year old she realized how silly it was that she had flown to a developing country to build a house – despite having no expertize in the field – when there were many highly trained carpenters and stonemasons in the village who could have done a much better job. Similarly, in Peru I struggled to strip bark from a log, and then watched a local Peruvian man do it in a fraction of a second. Pippa Biddle makes the point that often, the best way for the white, middle class development worker to do development is to not be there. In her case that meant working with a camp in the Dominican from behind the scenes. She says she would much rather have the children there look up to a local counselor who they look like and can relate to, rather than a foreigner who will leave in a matter of months. This is a hard pill to swallow for those of us who like to travel and be engaged on the ground, but this probably just shows the level of selfishness associated with development work – at least in my case.

Finally, the sense I get is that often people doing ‘good’ development work look down on those doing ‘bad’ voluntourism. This is true in many situations in life – people judge others for being ignorant, but then often don’t do anything to reach out to that person or meet them where they’re at. It’s not fair to those girls to judge them for their actions but then not give them the chance to learn more. If people had scorned me for having been a voluntourist I would never have learned about all its flaws, or what to do better. Not that anyone really knows how to do better. But I think a start would be counteracting the stereotypes that Africa needs saving, or that the West is somehow better than the rest. To watch some awesome clips from people who are already doing this, check out the links below:

http://endhumanitariandouchery.co.nf/

http://www.africafornorway.no/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8GZjZTZrWA

To conclude, I hope this post doesn’t sound too holier-than-thou. These are just my musings from yesterday’s encounter with twelve slightly exaggerated versions of my 19 year old self. I’m definitely much different than I was then, but I’m sure I still have many blindspots.
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*The pictures were being sold for an outrageous price, so as poor but resourceful students we haggled with the camera guy and decided to split the diminished sum between the six of us in our boat – one girl took the pictures, so we’re waiting until she can find an internet café to send them to us.

**Voluntourism is the act of going overseas for a volunteer placement and to travel. Usually the placements are short term, sometimes over a March break or a Christmas holiday. Trips like Habitat for Humanity, Me to We, etc. are perfect examples. The issue with voluntourism is that such short term projects are likely to do more harm than good, since unqualified young tourists just swoop in, get an ‘authentic’ experience that makes them feel validated and then leave. It also might perpetuate the negative stereotypes that the visitors have about the country because they aren’t there long enough to understand the local dynamics. Although the trip members undoubtedly learn a lot, the communities rarely benefit. Furthermore, people pay ridiculous amounts of money for these trips, most of which goes to the organization that’s sending them and not to the people in the place they’re going. Very few of the organizations are actually locally based, which reeks a bit of neo-colonialism. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Trading in Rhetoric: When David said no to Goliath

June 6th, 2015

Everyone knows the biblical story of David and Goliath. It is the classic example of the underdog rising up to beat the unbeatable opponent. Even though it occurred in Israel thousands of years ago, people still use David and Goliath’s battle as a metaphor for beating the odds. Heck, Malcolm Gladwell even wrote a book with that title. Unfortunately however, stories like that of David and Goliath rarely actually occur (why do you think we’re still using an example from thousands of years ago?). In the real world David often takes a good beating from Goliath and goes home to skulk and lick his wounds. End of story.

The United States of America likes to see itself as a modern day David equivalent. They started off as the underdog: a British colony inhabited by settlers who came to the ‘New World’ in search of a better life. After years of being under Britain’s thumb, they finally gained their independence in 1776, and have since risen to become a superpower. The Little Americans Who Could beat the big bad British Empire. And with independence, the American Dream was born. No longer did your class determine your place in life – if you were a mechanic but wanted to be a lawyer, you could do it! If you were a high school cheerleader, you could one day become President! (Yes I’m talking about you George W. Bush). If however you were a slave – taken from your community in Africa to come be beaten to death in the ‘Free World’ – you pretty much had to stay a slave. Darn. Sorry fellas, better luck next time.

But I’m getting off track: Although America may have started out as a modern day David, it is now most certainly a Goliath. Fast forward past the abolition of slavery, a few World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, and you have the global hegemony that America enjoys today. That’s the funny thing about success: you may start out with your whole image built around being the underdog, but once you’ve worked your way to the top, fighting tooth and nail, you earn the ability to do to others what was done to you when you were at the bottom. The oppressed become the oppressors, and the cycle continues, despite your promises that you would never sink to that level. Power is a funny thing.

Ok, so what does all that have to do with being in Uganda? Quite a bit actually. But let me rewind to what got me thinking about all of this in the first place: on Thursday Shelby, Jeremy and I had the good fortune of being invited to a Regional Stakeholder Consultative Meeting on Promoting Pro-Development Investment Policies and Agreements in the East African Community (EAC).* Quite the mouthful of a title. Essentially, the meeting was to discuss trade between Uganda and other, more developed countries (namely the United States and countries in the EU). Now, my knowledge of trade agreements is fuzzy at best, so for most of the day-long meeting I was frantically typing down things I didn’t understand, hoping that they would formulate themselves into coherent ideas later. But no such luck. So please take the following explanation of international trade with a grain of salt, and if I butcher it I apologize:**

Over the last several years East Africa has had a spike in economic growth. In fact, of the top 20 fastest growing economies in the world, three of them are in East Africa. This region is resource-rich and as such it possesses valuable commodities like minerals that can be used in cellphones and computers (odds are at least a small percentage of your smartphone originated in East Africa). Naturally, countries that don’t have these resources want to get their hands on them. One way to do this is through foreign direct investment, or FDIs. Basically an FDI is exactly what it sounds like: a foreign country invests in a country they are interested in, which in theory gives the former country the resources they want, and the latter country’s economy is boosted and more local jobs are generated.***Because these are desirable outcomes for a country like Uganda, for the past several years the Ugandan Investment Authority has been promoting FDIs.

To take it one step further, now Uganda is looking into signing Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) with the US and countries in the EU to help facilitate FDIs and other types of trade between the nations. The idea is that the US and the EU will have access to the resources they want, and Uganda can grow its economy with the hope of becoming a so called developed country. It’s a win win right?

Wrong. To see why, let’s go back to the story of David and Goliath: Goliath was bigger and stronger than David, and no one could argue that it was a fair fight. But because it’s a story – and maybe Goliath was having an off day, slept on the wrong side of the bed or something – David miraculously won. But that outcome was very, very unlikely. Probably about the same likelihood of an average American winning the lottery, and therefore reinforcing the idea of the American Dream. So let me propose a different course of action: What if instead of choosing to fight Goliath, David had turned it down? What if instead he politely said, “No thank you, you’re much bigger and stronger than I am, so I’d be a fool to think I could beat you. I’m no gambler, so I think I’ll need to hit the gym for a little while longer before I’ll be ready to fight. Maybe throw a few extra protein shakes into my diet, or do some crossfit (even though it seems a bit like a cult).Either way, I’ve clearly got some work to do, so why don’t I give you a call when I’ve bulked up a bit?” This scenario wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting, but it definitely would have increased David’s chances of winning in a fight against Goliath.

What Food Rights Alliance, SEATINI, and the other NGOs were arguing for at the trade meeting on Thursday was essentially a version of this alternative scenario. They saw right through the presentations by the sleazy reps from the Ministry of Trade who advocated for BIT agreements with the US. In 2008 the East African Community (EAC) signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with the US where parties undertook to monitor and promote bilateral trade and investment between them, and now they want to move forward with this Investment Model Treaty. The EAC wants to take on Goliath, but SEATINI, FRA and the other organizations want them to wait. They want them to wait because while FDIs are fashionable, there is no evidence that they actually help a country develop. Sure they boost economic growth, but depending on the sector there are often very few jobs created, and those that are created are low level, low wage jobs.

Furthermore, foreign investors have their own agenda. They aren’t interested in helping Uganda develop; they’re here for inputs, markets, and cheap labour. Their interests are governed by the logic of capital accumulation. The reality is, they’re here to purchase Uganda’s raw materials at low prices, take them back home to process, and then sell the products for much higher prices. And what does Uganda get in return? A bit of economic growth, and the hope that by doing business with developed countries they will develop. Sounds to me like the US is getting tangible materials, and all Uganda gets in return is rhetoric and ideology – their very own American Dream. But ideology won’t feed people, and neither will rhetoric.

Back in the day Britain wanted America to sign a Free Trade agreement, but America said no. They recognized the need to protect their agrarian economy, because as a Professor of Political Science said at Thursday’s meeting, “free trade is not for the faint hearted”. Instead of accepting Britain’s offer, America invested in themselves and overtime their economy and their power grew. Then, years later when they were strong enough, they went back and re-tabled the idea of free trade with Britain. In this case David did exactly what Goliath didn’t want him to do: he waited until he was strong enough to fight, and then he won.

Now America is Goliath and the EAC is David. Goliath is asking David to fight, and it looks like David is going to fall for it. Unless the NGOs represented on Thursday can get their voices heard:**** they recognized that despite what it looks like, the EAC is actually holding all the cards. They have the goods, and all America has in exchange is some money and a dying idea that they’ve been peddling for decades.

My mom, a facilitator, says that you always have the most power before you sign a contract. That’s when you still have room to make requests and hammer out your terms. Similarly, the EAC is in a powerful position right now. As one representative at the meeting asked, “is one of the barriers to Uganda’s development not having a trade agreement with the US? Is Uganda losing by not signing the agreement?” The answer is no, they aren’t. Uganda has what America wants, and they can choose to give it to them or not. And as the professor of Political Science pointed out, “if trade and investment treaties are the answer, then what’s the question?” The proposed trade agreement says it will protect investments in both territories – but Uganda doesn’t have any investments in America, so really what it is saying is that Uganda will agree to protect America. Seems a bit counter intuitive given that Uganda is the one that needs protecting.

As the same Professor stated, “salvation never comes from overseas”. Therefore, it sounds like it’s time for Uganda and the EAC to invest in itself. If it develops a strong industrial base then it can process the raw materials found in this country, and therefore be able to provide for themselves and sell the resulting products at higher prices. As Obama said, “markets make good servants but bad masters”. Signing this agreement would put the market in the driver’s seat, and Uganda’s development would become a mere footnote on the agenda, instead of the main focus. Uganda has only been independent for roughly 60 years – if it waits about 140 years more, it just might be ready to beat Goliath.
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*Our boss told us she had asked if she could “bring her children along” to the meeting (i.e. me and Jeremy). For a woman without children she is one of the most motherly people I know – especially when it comes to teaching her children lessons. Many a meeting has been punctuated by a teachable moment where she tells us and our co-workers how to chair a meeting, how to secure funding, etc.

** This explanation is essentially trade of dummies. Not because I don’t think you can understand the complexity of trade agreements, but because I don’t. In this case I’m the dummy.

***For a more detailed explanation of FDIs please toodle your way on over to Jeremy’s highly informative blog. He does a great job of explaining it.

****Sitting in Thursday’s meeting and listening to the brilliant people around me defend their country I couldn’t help but feel warm and fuzzy inside. Is it possible to feel patriotic for a country you aren’t from?

“The World is Round” – Part 2

May 27th 2015

After a few action packed days at work, I’m back! I have so many updates to share, but first let me continue my lengthy, somewhat dry musings steeped in IDS terminology (apologies in advance).

To summarize where I left off in the last post, I was talking about privilege. Here in Uganda I am acutely aware of the preferential treatment I receive because I am a mzungu*. Even in Canada I am aware that my very comfortable life comes at the expense of the wellbeing of people in far off places, as well as at home. So although I cannot take responsibility for past harms like colonialism, I can acknowledge the consequences of my current actions. In my favorite childhood movie called Ever After – a rendition of Cinderella featuring a young Drew Barrymore – Barrymore’s sassy character tells the prince that he was “born to privilege, and with that comes specific obligations”. Although my life is unfortunately very far from the fairy tale world in the movie, this particular line is very relevant to reality. The privilege I was born into comes with the responsibility to act conscientiously and do what small part I can to improve the condition of the world (queue inspirational music).

Now, time for some development theory that I think is relevant (although I’ll leave that for you to decide, if you can stay awake until the end):

In historian W.E.H Lecky’s 1869 book A History of European Morals he introduced the concept of The Expanding Circle. The Expanding Circle theorizes that “the number of people we consider worthy of our moral consideration has expanded through history, like a circle”. At one time people only cared about their immediate family, but overtime the circle expanded to include a class, then a nation, and finally all of humanity**. Lecky argues that throughout history more and more people have gone from being The Other to being part of a collective Us. This is why we see countries sending humanitarian aid to other nations in far off places. As my co-worker S said, “the world is round”. Overtime humanity’s compassion for each other has expanded to include the whole world.

At least in theory.

Now let me turn to a different but closely connected topic. Australian philosopher Peter Singer has a popular ethical metaphor called The Drowning Child. Although I disagree with many of his arguments about charity and development, this particular metaphor is relevant to the idea that we have a moral responsibility to humankind. So let me walk you through it:

Imagine that on your way to work or school you pass a shallow pond. One day you see that there is a child drowning in that pond. It would be easy for you to save that child and you would incur no harm to yourself. However your clothes would be ruined and you would be late for your daily activities. The question is, do you have an obligation to save that child?

The answer is obviously a resounding yes. The child’s safety far outweighs the cost of ruining your clothes and being late. Even if there are other people walking by who have just as much agency to save the child, this doesn’t lessen the responsibility you have to do so.*** But now let us change the scenario slightly. What if the child who needs saving is far away, say in a different country? It is equally within your means to save them, with negligible cost to yourself. Most people would say that distance and nationality should make little difference, and they would still choose to save the child. I know I would. But now let us add one final layer to Singer’s metaphor. What if we are not only able to save the child drowning in the pond, but what if we actually had a role in how they ended up there in the first place? Wouldn’t that multiply our responsibility to save them by a hundredfold? I think it would, and does.

Andrew Linklater discusses a variation of this phenomenon in one of his articles when he reconceptualises foreign aid as justice. He gives the example of aid given by Britain to Mozambique after they experienced a flood. The world saw Britain as a charitable, caring nation to take such actions. However, what people failed to realize was that Britain had been responsible for some of the deforestation in Mozambique that contributed to the severity of the flooding. So were they being charitable, or were they simply addressing the consequences of their actions? Not to sound like a broken record, but the world is round. Countries should not be meeting their aid targets of 0.7% of their GDP – which by the way most of them aren’t – simply so that they can feel warm and fuzzy inside. They should be doing so because they have a moral responsibility to address the results that their actions have on the world. In his writings, John Rawls uses a thought experiment called the Veil of Ignorance. He imagines that people have to create society from behind a veil where they are unaware of what their position, race, or tastes will be. From this position, he argues that people would choose to maximize the benefit for the least fortunate in society, because they may find themselves in that position. Unfortunately however, in reality we cannot pause and recreate society from behind that veil. In the world’s current state, we must try to maximize the benefit for the least fortunate starting from a situation of gross inequality.

Alright, I’ll stop there.

So far this post has been very theoretical, so let me now ground it in my current experiences here in Uganda. As a visitor in this country, I can’t help but wonder what I can do to better the situation around me. The Canadian International Development Agency, aka CIDA (RIP), used to fund organizations like Canada World Youth that would send Canadian students on experiential learning programs abroad. The costs of these programs were included in the annual budget for foreign aid. Similarly, I am here in Uganda because the government is funding me as part of their development strategy. So both for my own peace of mind and to best utilize the government’s money, I can’t help but want to have the most positive impact here that I possibly can. I am a person who likes to help, no matter where I am or who I’m with.

But now for the hard part: what does that helping look like? For the next three months does it mean paying a higher price for things at the market so that the hardworking vendor’s can pocket an extra few shillings? Does it mean giving the children begging on the street a few bills and hoping it doesn’t get taken from them by the people who they report to? I find it hard to believe that my money is all I can give, despite the common assumption here that all mzungu’s are wealthy. I know that I have many valuable things to contribute, but it is hard to identify what they are and how to utilize them. They say that knowledge is power, but I feel like the more I learn about these complex issues of inequality and poverty the more my hands are tied. I want to do the right thing, but the more I learn the more it seems like every option is wrong.

Moreover, how much should I assume that I can realistically do? I am a twenty two year old student who is here in Uganda for three months working as an intern. Despite the preferential treatment I have been given, my power is very limited. In a work setting, anything I have been included in is more for my benefit than for the organization’s. And to play devil’s advocate to my former discussion of cosmopolitanism, why would I assume that it is my responsibility to do anything? When people think of this continent they picture starving children and people dying of HIV/AIDS. The image is one of helplessness. But in the two weeks that I’ve been here this seems so far from the case. People here are alive. They have normal concerns, like what to do on the weekend and whether they are doing a good job at work. As one MP said in a meeting last week: “we have problems, but we are not dying”. There are hundreds of Ugandans working to solve Uganda’s problems, and doing a good job of it considering what they’re up against. So what gives me the right to swoop in and assume that I can do a better job than them? And furthermore, why would I be trying to change a country I barely know, when there are scores of issues back home? It is a neocolonialist idea to think that foreigners can do a better job of solving a country’s problems than the people who have grown up there.

Now here’s another question: why do so many people from the Global North assume that people in the Global South want to be like them? In the GMO meeting last week that I mentioned, a few MPs referenced the issue of obesity in America. They used it as a cautionary tale of what they do not want for Uganda. Interestingly, they talked about obesity with the same tone of fear that we in North America would talk about HIV/AIDS on this continent. Yes, both are pressing health issues. But the media presents us with one angle – mere snippets of a much larger story, presented out of context and coupled with fear tactics. I hate that more often than not media corporations only show the negative side of the equation, because it assumes a lack of agency and flippantly disempowers a continent of people in the eyes of the Global North. It is actively perpetuating stereotypes that I’ve seen firsthand are not necessarily the case.

So, to conclude.

This post has been long and rambling, so if you’ve made it this far I applaud you. When you boil it down, what I’m trying to say is this: I think Lecky’s idea of the Expanding Circle needs to be challenged, at least to some extent. Yes, in theory we feel responsibility for the state of humanity, but in practice we still put up walls and create divides between each other, both at home and abroad. Sometimes we see the drowning child and dive in to save them, but other times we just continue to walk by – if we don’t break the surface of the water than we won’t have to deal with how deep it is. The pond looks shallow: give money to a country in the Global South and you can make a difference. But in reality the issues run much deeper than that. Wanting to help isn’t enough – you have to know how, which is something I’m still trying to figure out. But as Linklater explains, it’s everyone’s responsibility to do so.

It is true that the world is round. But unfortunately, despite my good intentions more often than not I feel like all I am doing is going in circles.
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*A Swahili word that originally meant ‘dazed’ to refer to the confused looks that European settlers had in colonial times. Now however it is used to refer to white people – we hear it at least five times a day. It is not meant in a negative way, but merely as a way to identify us.
**One argument is that we are now expanding to include the whole animal kingdom. Therefore The Expanding Circle argument is often used by animal rights activists.
***However what may occur in this case is a collective action problem when everyone expects someone else to act and therefore no one does. But that’s getting off topic.

“The World is Round” – Part 1

May 24th 2015

Zig Ziglar once said, “Among the things you can give and still keep are your word, a smile, and a grateful heart”. Since arriving in Uganda, everyone I’ve met has given the two former things and much more, while in return I have given the latter. In many cases people here have devoted their time and their energy to ensure that we feel safe, comfortable, and welcomed. This weekend was no exception: on Friday night a co-worker invited us out to a bar to hear some Ugandan music. Over Nile beers (delicious) and a few games of pool (we lost), we talked about music, relationships, gender equality, and Uganda’s laws against homosexuality. This morning the same co-worker picked us up at 6:30am to attend church at his local parish. The church was a large brick structure with narrow wooden benches – a simple space with just the necessities, but our voices quickly filled it with music as we sang the many hymns that Jeremy, Shelby and I struggled to follow. Afterwards our co-worker, S, took us back to his home and fed us tea and sandwiches while his young nephews ran around in the background. There was a constant flow of cousins, brothers and sisters in and out of the house, which added to the atmosphere of warmth and closeness that enveloped the neighborhood. From what I could tell it was the ultimate example of a close knit community. When we left, S gave us each an avocado picked from the tree outside and invited us back next weekend.

The whole experience reminded me of something S had said at the bar on Friday when we’d thanked him for being so welcoming. He told us that his father would always say “the world is round”. It is a sentiment akin to karma, or the phrase “what goes around comes around”: the idea that your actions now will inspire similar actions in the future. To me it also seems to embody the closeness between people that we somehow rarely feel. The world is round meaning that it is contained, and we are all part of the same cycle. Maybe it sounds cheesy, but that quote stuck with me, as will our experiences today.

Now onto a heavier topic: let’s talk about privilege. It’s something that I’ve been acutely aware of since arriving in Uganda. No one in the top economic and social percentiles of the world’s population can ever truly ignore it, but often privilege is merely one small thread in the midst of a tumult of other thoughts and concerns in peoples’ daily lives. For example, when passing by a homeless person on the street you may briefly have the thought “I’m glad that isn’t me” – but that is quickly replaced by lists of errands or other irrelevant to dos. Here though, faced with a constant stream of good wishes from people like S, I can’t help but wonder what we’ve done to deserve this? Not to be cynical, but people here don’t know us, so they have no reason to be so open and helpful.

That said, I do believe that the reason people here are so friendly has very little to do with who we are and instead a lot to do with the quality of their characters’. From our boda driver who always picks us up with a big handshake and an exuberant smile, to the owner of the guesthouse who calls a few times a week to make sure we’re ok; the Ugandans who we have come into contact with are generally just good people. But while this weekend’s events occurred because Ugandans are inclined to be friendly and welcoming, there have also been many times in the past week or so when we’ve received preferential treatment. And yes, to put it bluntly it is because of the perceived privilege that comes with having white skin.

I’d like to stop here and take a minute to say a few things: Race is a sensitive topic, so I apologize if I manhandle it in the next few paragraphs in an effort to sort out what I think. In a world of political correctness there are so many pitfalls that can quickly label you as racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. Sometimes the simple misuse of a word can overshadow your good intentions. So please know that these next few paragraphs are well intended and are written in an effort to give an honest account of my experience here so far. There are some tough questions that I’ve been asking myself lately – things that I am mulling over and have not necessarily come to terms with fully yet. What follows is just my attempt to reconcile them internally, and now externally to you.

So to continue: Jeremy, Shelby and I are a visible minority here. As Caucasians, there are associations connected to the colour of our skin. It is because of this that half the congregation came up to shake our hands after church today. It is the same reason why on our third day of work we were privy to a meeting with members of parliament to discuss the proposed GMO bill (more on that later). Now one could argue that this latter example happened because we won a prestigious scholarship that has allowed us to travel here and work for an NGO, and as an intern at said NGO a meeting with MPs is part of the parcel. But I don’t think it’s that simple. For instance, the only reason we won the scholarship was because we (and our parents) had the means to send us to a good university. I was raised in a comfortable, well off setting, and because of that, this scholarship and many other opportunities have made themselves available to me. I recognize that this privilege is something I have that many others don’t.

As someone who wants to fix things, I struggle with this privilege because I don’t think the solution is for me to feel guilty for a position in life that I was born into. I could just as easily have been born to a poor rural Ugandan farmer instead of a middle class Canadian couple (bear with me here). Similarly, there is a long history of colonialism on this continent, all enforced by people who I happen to share a skin colour with. Although some people may disagree with the following statement, I don’t think it would be productive for me to feel personally guilty about what people who share my skin colour have done. However, knowing that I had no say in what men and women with whom I share small amounts of DNA did a few hundred years ago is different than ignoring the fact that it happened. Whether it is fair or not, there is a history that I represent because of the colour of my skin. And whether I feel direct responsibility for that history or not, I must acknowledge the underlying power dynamics that it has created.

Furthermore, while I may have had no control over colonialism, I am responsible for my actions now. One of the things that I’ve learned in my four years at university is that my relative wealth and happiness comes at a cost. Unfortunately, in its current state the world is zero sum – for one to win another must lose. I don’t believe it has to be this way, but right now my lifestyle in Canada exists because there is exploitation elsewhere in the world. Child labour allows me to buy clothing very cheaply, and my old laptop will probably be shipped to a country in the Global South where it will leak toxins into someone’s drinking water. As S said, the world is round. My actions in Canada affect people halfway across the world, and without knowing it I have the power to harm someone I’ve never met. Not to sound preachy, but whether we like it or not we have some measure of responsibility in the inequality that our lifestyles perpetuate. And although that’s a hard pill to swallow, it’s much easier than being on the other end of the equation.
(To be continued)